Before Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan can decide his trade options heading into next weekend’s NHL draft in Philadelphia, he must first answer this question:
Is Alex Ovechkin a right wing or left wing?
If Ovechkin returns for a third straight season at right wing, a position switch that led to back-to-back goal-scoring titles and 83 goals in 126 games under Adam Oates, the Caps almost certainly will trade one of their right wings. If Ovechkin returns to his natural off-wing and plays on the left side under new coach Barry Trotz, there’s a good chance Troy Brouwer, Tom Wilson, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr return as the Caps’ top four right wings.
On Tuesday night, Ovechkin will be in Las Vegas to pick up his fourth Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer. Trotz has agreed to fly out to Vegas to meet with his 28-year-old captain, who will be meeting his fourth coach in three years and his fifth coach in nine years.
If given a choice, it’s hard to say which side Ovechkin would rather play. He enjoyed incredible success in his first five NHL seasons as a left winger, averaging 54 goals a season. But in his final two seasons under Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter, Ovechkin was held to “just” 32 goals and 38 goals, respectively.
Oates raised some eyebrows when he convinced Ovechkin to play right wing prior to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, but the strategy paid off when Ovechkin netted 32 goals in 48 games in Oates’ first season and 51 goals in 77 games last season.
If Ovechkin prefers to stay at right wing and Trotz is on board with it, the Caps would need to trade one of their veterans, Troy Brouwer being the most likely, to make room for Wilson to play the desired top-12 minutes.
Brouwer is coming off a career-best 25-goal season and would certainly be a big piece of a trade package to land a high-end defenseman. But his grit and leadership would be difficult to replace on a team that needs both.
If it is Trotz’ plan to play Ovechkin on the left side, the Caps could open the season with Ward, Brouwer, Wilson and Fehr as their right wing depth chart.
That would give the Caps better balance on the left wing as well, with a possible depth chart of Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Jason Chimera and either Andre Burakovsky or Aaron Volpatti.
The Caps’ view on Burakovsky also could determine whether Johansson fits into their plans for this season or is used in a trade package to land that coveted blue liner.
If the Caps believe Burakovsky is ready for the big time at age 19, Johansson’s future in Washington becomes cloudy, especially if Ovechkin moves back to left wing. If the Caps see Burakovsky as a year away from the NHL, Johansson could return as their second-line left wing.
For the sake of argument, let’s go with the assumption Ovechkin returns to left wing and Mikhail Grabovski signs elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. Here’s what the Caps’ opening-night lineup could look like:
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Joel Ward
Marcus Johansson/Andre Burakovsky – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera – Brooks Laich – Tom Wilson
Aaron Volpatti - Jay Beagle – Eric Fehr
Extras: Chris Brown, Michael Latta
Karl Alzner – John Carlson
UFA/Trade acquisition – Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov – Jack Hillen
Extras: John Erskine, Connor Carrick
Braden Holtby – UFA/Trade Acquisition
Extra: Philipp Grubauer
How does your potential depth chart differ? And feel free to fill in the blanks on defense and goaltender.